Subject: Uniting Church in Australia - Comment on 'Church on the rocks'

also Regarding the article: Church on the Rocks

Comment on 'Church on the rocks - Is Protestant church in East Timor down for the count?' in Presbyterian News Service, Presbyterian Church (USA), July 16, 2004

by John Barr - Executive Secretary, Uniting International Mission, Uniting Church in Australia National Assembly (Sydney),

John Filiatreau, reporter with the Presbyterian News Service, Presbyterian Church USA, has produced a timely article concerning difficulties and challenges being faced by the Igreja Protestante iha Timor Lorosa'e (IPTL or Protestant Church in East Timor).

Quoting the newly re-elected IPTL moderator, John Filiatreau refers to the terrible time in September 1999 when militia gangs went on a rampage of killing, looting and burning. These Indonesian military backed militia went on to destroy much of East Timor's infrastructure while they forced a third of the population over the border into Indonesian (West) Timor.

John Filiatreau appears to be highly sensitive towards the trauma suffered by the Rev. Francisco de Vasconcelos (the moderator) and others during this period while his article also acknowledges the significant role the Rev. Francisco de Vasconcelos took in leading "the remnant of the Protestant church into the mountains, where a group of about 100 hid for three weeks with no food or water, watching the smoke rise over Dili."

This is an important acknowledgement and the whole story is yet to be told. John Filiatreau also mentions that a number of Protestant church members, and even pastors, were involved in some of this violence. I, too, have interviewed people and heard stories about some Protestant church members and pastors burning, looting and stealing church property during this terrible time. It is fairly clear to me that the Protestant church was infiltrated and perhaps even compromised during the period of Indonesian occupation and the period associated with the UN sponsored referendum.

Many people may be aware that Indonesian intelligence methods together with the activities of Indonesian special services can be absolutely ruthless. Church members, pastors and even ministers are not beyond their grasp. Such measures are currently being witnessed in West Papua, Maluku and Aceh.

With this in mind, I am somewhat saddened and distressed with the overall tone of John Filiatreau's article. Violence and bloodshed were the norm in East Timor. I remember spending time in East Timor during 1989 and again in 1997. The stories I heard concerning the wanton destruction of human life and the ruthless abuse of human rights will always trouble me. Indigenous East Timorese have been abused for centuries. Their culture has been scorned and they have been labeled as being "backward" and "uncivilized".

Such vilification has been used to justify the violence against the East Timorese and indigenous people have been treated like "trash". I am therefore saddened that references like "is the Protestant church in East Timor down for the count?", the "need a combative leader at the helm" and the leader "who was cold-cocked", are included in John Fliliatreau's article.

Aggressive imagery based on the notion of "combat" and the "boxing ring" is definitely not helpful here. My understanding is that the Rev. Francisco de Vasconcelos did assault the Rev. Daniel Marcal. He was then held overnight by the local police while the Rev. Daniel Marcal decided not to press charges. To describe the encounter as "a knock-down-drag-out synod meeting" is rather unwise in my opinion. The issues are far more complex.

Indeed the issues are related, in my opinion, to the desperate need to discover alternative ways of dealing with conflict and the need to assert more self confidence on the part of individuals and the church. Indonesia's example in East Timor taught local people only one option when it comes to dealing with conflict while most locals were simply told they were "no bodies'.

A lot of sensitive work has to be done here to affirm local people and to help them to discover alternative ways of dealing with conflict beyond the use of violence.

John Filiatreau is correct when he refers to the Protestant church (known then as the GKTT) being closely associated with Indonesia. Indonesia believed that it was in its interest to maintain a Protestant church in East Timor as a foil against the overwhelming presence of Roman Catholicism. Considerable resources were put into the GKTT and the necessary withdrawal of Indonesia from East Timor in 1999 did leave the Protestant church in great financial difficulty. It is also true that the former moderator and now the current East Timor Ambassador in Jakarta, the Rev. Arlindo Marcal, raised issues internationally and supported the GKTT's participation in the worldwide ecumenical movement. This participation is still greatly valued.

Meanwhile, Protestants in East Timor were involved in the resistance. In a sense, the GKTT was "two" churches. It was "Indonesian" in appearance while many of its indigenous members were actively engaged in the struggle for justice. It's important to be aware that many of these people made significant sacrifices and lost many friends and family members. Often their perceived "silence" concerning Indonesia's human rights abuses was simply a way of surviving in an almost intolerable situation.

I participated in some of the IPTL General Synod that took place in Ekaristi Church in Comoro (a suburb of Dili) from 5th to 11th July. Reconciliation was established between the Rev. Francisco de Vasconcelos and the Rev. Daniel Marcal in a very public and moving way. There were numerous other issues however the thing that struck me most was the positive involvement demonstrated by the "gathered church". This involved representatives from all over East Timor.

These representatives included ministers, pastors, evangelists and church members from remote villages in the mountains and isolated communities along the coast. Most were typically poor while one evangelist exclaimed "you people in the synod fight between yourselves and you ask for money from overseas…..we receive nothing yet we do our job and the Gospel is proclaimed out there in the rural community".

This comment simply affirmed what I had already observed. The IPTL is essentially a poor, rural church. Ministers, pastors. evangelists and church members faithfully proclaim the Gospel and get on with the ministry and mission of the church despite what happens in Dili. They have next to no resources but the church is there and it is alive. John Filiatreau claims that the Assemblies of God, the Bethel Community and Pentecostal Churches have at least 10 new congregations in Dili alone. However I would question their effectiveness in some of the more remote, rural communities where most of East Timor's population live.

Today the IPTL is an East Timorese church. It is true that the IPTL has no "mother church" in the West while relationships with other churches in Asia are rather ill-defined. This creates real issues concerning identity. As a Protestant church does the IPTL embrace a "reformed" tradition or is its legacy "evangelical" or "charismatic"? The current East Timorese government tends to look towards Portugal and Brazil while the Roman Catholic Church is firmly established with its distinct global identity. The IPTL, on the other hand, is pretty much adrift. It cannot reconnect with its Indonesian legacy while the churches of Asia and the Pacific are still remote.

The "pittance" paid to IPTL pastors is very much a reflection of East Timor's tragic economic situation. The church is fully aware of this situation and is constantly faced with the issue of sustaining itself in such a climate of national poverty. It's "virtually bankrupt" status, as described by John Filiatreau, is not necessarily an indicator of the church's "failure".

Meanwhile, the church continues to face real internal tensions and differences. Much of this is related to the issue of trust. The Indonesian military actively fostered a climate of deception and suspicion during their period of occupation. This climate lingers and many East Timorese hold fast to family alliances as their only form of protection. Indeed, many people are prepared to compromise themselves in other areas for the sake of these alliances.

The IPTL can only move forward as self-confidence, identity and trust is built. I believe the apparent dysfunctional nature of the church synod at present is related to these factors. While John Filiatreau touches on some relevant issues, the question he poses in the title of his article is not helpful. I believe the answer to this unfortunate question must be in the negative.

Meanwhile, our task is to affirm and encourage this tiny church. I believe passionately that the ecumenical community needs to work with our brothers and sisters in East Timor as they move beyond their tragic past to embrace the future as an indigenous church serving the people of an independent East Timor.


From Shirley Shackleton.

Regarding the article: Church on the Rocks by John Filiatreau (16/7/04)

There are several serious inacuracies in Mr. Filiatreau's otherwise interesting account.

For pro-Jakarta militias read collaborators and or mercenaries.

The claim that much of the capital city was reduced to rubble and ashes omits to tell us that most of the buildings throughout the entire country were torched. This took months of preparation by the Indonesian military and the work was started way back when the United Nation democratically supervised referendum was announced. This is how whole streets and towns were reduced to rubble and ashes: thousands of portable units designed to carry high-octane fuel saturated private and public buildings by means of hose usually employed to put fires out! The buildings were then set alight. Timorese were forced across the border into Indonesian controlled West Timor by the aems means. The order of the day was, 'Get on the truck or we will torch you and your family.'

As for the assertion that a mere 1,000 East Timorese were killed after the successful vote for independence was announced, the jury is still out. Many more than that were shoved down wells and floated out to sea on purpose made bamboo rafts after being murdered. One of my friends, a catholic nun was in a village when a finger was found in the body of a fish and the relatives recognised a ring which was still on the dead woman's finger!

Fretilin in not spelt Fretelin and though Falintil, the fighting arm of the political party called Fretilin fought for independence, to lump them with the militias is insulting and Indonesian propaganda. They were fighting for their country. They were heroic and they were patriots.

Why should the writer be surprised that 'some pro-Jakarta members and even pastors reportedly burned and looted their own churches' when the whole country was being looted? Everything of value was looted from the houses before they were set alight.

How can anyone claim that everything was going well in the Indonesian time when rape, torture and murder was endemic? Going well for whom may one ask?

Shirley Shackleton.


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